OPN 200312 Merkel-1584005474662
German Chancellor Angela Merkel addresses reporters before a meeting with Portugal's Prime Minister Antonio Costa (out of picture) in Berlin, Germany March 11, 2020 Image Credit: Reuters

Many Germans never remember a time when their nation wasn’t led by Angela Merkel. Most would need to remember when the only virus that mattered wasn’t Covid-19 but the Y2K millennium bug and mobile phones were only starting to be used for textual relations.

But within the next year, the German chancellor will be stepping aside. The most powerful nation in Europe, the EU’s political compass and the economic bedrock of European growth, will have a new leader.

The ‘when’ has already been decided — with the next German federal election set between August and October 2021. Merkel has indicated that she will be stepping aside, allowing a new leader of the Christian Democrats (CDU) to argue their case before the German electorate.

The choice between Merz and Laschet is a stark one — and will change German politics for the foreseeable future

-

But who that will be is still up in the air — even more so since Merkel’s chosen successor Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, decided to surprise the nation of 83 million with her decision to walk away from the political sphere.

For two-thirds of the time since the end of the Second World War, Germany has been led by a chancellor aligned with the centre-right CDU. Now, the party faithful face a choice between Friedrich Merz, a long-time Merkel critic who is the frontrunner, and Armin Laschet, the premier of Germany’s most populous state, North Rhine Westphalia.

Merz had previously thrown his hat into the CDU leadership ring unsuccessfully in 2018, losing to Kramp-Karrenbauer and driving the attorney and former lawmaker concentrate on his role at BlackRock, the world’s largest investment management firm.

Since leaving the German parliament in 2009, Merz has taken on a number of jobs in the finance sector and is also on the board of a number of German enterprises. The 64-year-old has also held posts at various firms seeking closer ties with the US.

For 10 years, he served as chairman of the non-profit Atlantik Brucke (Atlantic Bridge) association, which promotes German-US relations. He is also a member of the Trilateral Commission, which seeks to foster cooperation among Europe, Japan and the United States.

Merz’ message to refugees

The primal call of politics is simply too much Merz to ignore — it is ingrained in his DNA. He served as the CDU’s Bundestag leader from 2000 to 2002 and managed to engage with Germans in a way that Merkel has struggled. She did, however, out-manoeuvre him as she consolidated power, taking over the role of Bundestag leader herself and turning him to her deputy from 2002 to 2004.

Merz, though, has always had the gift of the gab — an ability to turn even the most complex issues into simple terms that connect with voters and make for essential sound bites.

While Merkel won plaudits for opening up Germany to more than 1.5 million refugees from Syrian and elsewhere in the Middle East at the height of the migrant crisis four years ago, Merz’ message — one that is appealing to many Germans disgruntled by the influx of new arrivals — is simple: “There is no point in coming to Germany.”

And it is playing well to a party who is locked in an existential battle with Alternative for Germany (AfD) over the right of the nation’s political landscape.

For his part, the centrist Laschet offers the prospect of continuity and more of the same after two decades of Merkel leadership. And with Germany teetering on the brink of its first recession since 2008, Laschet’s message of steady economic policies is making the right noises to Germans used to sound fiscal management.

CDU’s ideological fault lines

The choice for CDU supporters is Merkel 2.0 — a leader who can win elections but won’t reinvigorate the institutions — or opt for Merz, a straight-talking socially conservative leader who might just be the person to move the CDU sufficiently to the right to be able to reclaim support it has lost to AfD.

The ideological fault lines underlying the CDU became politically exposed in February when the Christian Democrats in Thuringia sided with the AfD to elect a new right-wing state premier.

For a party that grew from the ashes of a nation divided between East and West and riven by the effects of fascism and the extremist policies of the far right, getting into bed with AfD in February marked a new post-war nadir — one that led Kramp-Karrenbauer to give up her leadership ambitions.

The 59-year-old Laschet is a former journalist who made a name for himself as the North Rhine Wesphalia’s very first minister for integration. Because he offered a nuanced approach to integration and immigration matters, political adversaries disparagingly called him “Turkish Armin.”

For CDU members, the choice between Merz and Laschet is a stark one — and will change German politics for the foreseeable future. Elect a leader who will be able to build bridges between the centre and progressive left? Or elect a leader who might be able to regain ground lost to the AfD but would at least entertain the notion of sharing their bed.

More on Merkel